Health, National News, News

UM professor collaborates with FIU professor, DEA to trace opioid production

Opioid misuse plagues millions in America every year, with the heart of the crisis in Florida. Now two professors, including one from the University of Miami, are working to transform the methods to determine the sources of specific heroin samples.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 12.5 million people misused prescription opioids in 2015. The opioid epidemic claimed the lives of almost 13,000 Americans in the same year.

On Oct. 26, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. Though funds weren’t increased to fight the abuse, Trump vowed to battle against the epidemic by producing government-funded advertisements against opioid use.

“No part of our society, not young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural has been spared this plague of drug addition and this horrible, horrible situation that’s taken place with opioids,” Trump said during a ceremony at the White House.

FIU’s José Almirall, director of FIU’s International Forensic Research Institute, was first approached with a project request funded by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Almirall, also a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, reached out to Ali Pourmand, an isotope geochemist at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Together, they have been collaborating to fight a national crisis.

Pourmand and Almirall’s project is the first of its kind. The researchers examine and profile samples of heroin to find what are called “tagging agents,” impurities that allow researchers to determine the origin of the drug.

“By identifying the tracer, I could tell you that this sample has the fingerprint, or the signature, of a South American heroin, or that this sample is from South Asia,” Pourmand said.

The DEA’s funding allowed for the processing of 400 heroin samples, all of which originated from four regions infamous for heroin distribution: Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, South America and Mexico.

Pourmand said these four “hotspots” are where the opium poppies are refined and “cooked” in to heroin. Although the manufacturing process of heroin is similar throughout the regions, the chemical composition varies. Each manufacturer utilizes different raw material, and this is what allows the heroin to be traced.

The key tracer used in the study, called a radiogenic strontium isotope, either links “the heroin to the rock on which the plant grew, or to the component that the heroin was mixed with,” Pourmand said.

Although the DEA had been using a number of other tracking agents, Pourmand said, the introduction of the strontium isotope added a “new layer of forensic and tactical information in tracking where the heroin came from.”

In order to verify the accuracy of the new method, the DEA gave Pourmand and Almirall samples it had already traced and asked the researchers to use their approach.

Eighty-five percent of samples were correctly traced to the location of origin, creating a “not entirely conclusive, but very successful” forensic tool.

Through continuation and refinement of the recently discovered strontium-based method, Pourmand said there is a possibility for expansion of the project.

“The idea is to build a big database, ultimately, that an agent that confiscates heroin can go to and have it analyzed and determined where it originated from,” he said.

November 6, 2017

Reporters

Paulina Kanburiyan


Around the Web
  • Miami Herald
  • UM News
  • HurricaneSports

The season is evaporating before our eyes. And nothing made that more obvious than University of Mia ...

The Miami Hurricanes had to adjust their offense at halftime Saturday to pull out a road win against ...

Photo Gallery: UM v. Virginia Tech | Saturday, November 17, 2018 … Click to Continue » ...

The Miami Hurricanes found new life Saturday — despite so much seemingly going wrong. Big plays on o ...

At least in terms of their bowl situation, the Miami Hurricanes can take a deep, collective breath. ...

Kristiana Yao, who graduated summa cum laude in May, said she was “still in shock” after finding out ...

UM Libraries is presenting an extraordinary exhibit that immerses the audience in an emotional journ ...

A UM researcher is helping to lead a study on how smoke interacts with clouds and its impact on the ...

People are bombarded with news and information these days, providing opportunities for discourse tha ...

Students, faculty and staff stopped by the School of Architecture’s Korach Gallery to learn what Mag ...

The No. 24 Miami women's basketball team dropped a 75-52 decision Sunday at Iowa State in the P ...

The Canes got back to their winning ways with an impressive 38-14 victory at Virginia Tech. ...

20-point performances from Chris Lykes and DJ Vasiljevic led Miami past Bethune-Cookman. ...

The University of Miami volleyball team forced No. 10 Pitt to five sets in a thrilling match on Seni ...

The No. 24 Miami women's basketball team is headed to Iowa State for the Preseason WNIT champio ...

TMH Twitter
About TMH

The Miami Hurricane is the student newspaper of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. The newspaper is edited and produced by undergraduate students at UM and is published weekly in print on Tuesdays during the regular academic year.